Thursday, April 28

Understanding Media Interviews

The May-June edition of Communication World, published by the International Association of Business Communicators, recently ran an article written by Karen Friedman that does a great job at boiling down what spokespeople need to know before speaking with the media. Here are few highlights, along with a few additions* from our media training program.

Be real. People want to relate to you. No one wants to hear from a robot who is so ''on message'' that they never smile or show emotion. *Some of the best spokespeople in the world are not those who stay ''on message'' but rather are people who use their message as a guide to share personalized stories and information that accurately conveys the point.

Speak their language. They know you're smart - that's why they're interviewing you. So avoid big words or workplace jargon. Speak simply and conversationally. *Having worked for the media and corporations, it's easy to see that writers are often translators for industry experts. As a side note, customers are not all that big on jargon either.

Own your interview. Interviews are opportunities to inform and educate. It's not enough to simply answer the question. Try to address the question and look for opportunities to insert your message. *A seasoned spokesperson almost always finds opportunities to define their company. This, of course, assumes the company has taken the time to develop a message.

Don't ramble. Say what you have to say as clearly as possible, and then stop. It is not your responsibility to fill the silence and too much information can create confusion. *Not coincidentally, filling silence often results in taking interviews off subject, and sometimes shifts the focus of the story. Be mindful of what you talk about.

Attitude is everything. Cooperate without being offensive, argumentative, or confrontational. Don't tell reporters how to do their jobs. Provide information to guide them, but let them write their story. *Nothing frustrates reporters more than the spokesperson telling them what the story should be about or that someone knows better because ''they can't understand.''

Avoid either/or questions. You cannot win an either/or question, which can box you into a limited answer. Take the high road and present a big picture. *Very few subjects are black and white so limiting yourself to one side of an issue or topic is always a mistake. The same can be said about hypothetical questions. Don't guess at what you could not possibly know.

Be yourself. If you don't know, say so. Reporters will respect your honesty. *Even better, let them know if you can find out and when you intend to get back to them. There is nothing worse than guessing at answers only to find out you were wrong or attempting to mask that you don't know by talking around the question.

There are many more, but these are great basics not only when you speak to reporters, but also when you speak with anyone. After all, with the growing popularity of blogs, everyone is a potential reporter/publisher.

To illustrate the point: I read a blog entry that shared an entire conversation that the blogger had with a customer service representative of a car insurance company. The blog is well read, about 100 visitors a day.

After reading the post and about the blogger's decision to choose another company, I could not help but to wonder if the customer service representative might have handled the call differently had she known she was talking to an amateur reporter/publisher with 1,000 readers a month. It's something to keep in mind because it used to be that one negative impression/customer interaction is shared, on average, with eight other consumers or potential customers.

Nowadays, one negative impression can reach thousands, making everyone an important spokesperson for their companies.

Sunday, April 24

Saying It Again - Innovate


Thanks to Rod Smith's April 24 column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, readers were treated to one of my favorite Steve Wynn stories.

In the column, Wynn recounts Wendell Atkins (a 1973 Waylon Jennings impersonator) meeting Jennings for the first time at the Golden Nugget. After Atkins offered up that he hoped Jennings did not mind being impersonated, Jennings said he considered it a compliment. Then he added ''... there's just one way to make it in this world in entertainment. The only chance you got is to be Wendell Atkins ... when you do Waylon Jennings, you're always going to be a song behind.''

The column ends with Wynn saying ''That's what Waylon Jennings told Wendell Atkins in 1973, and I'm saying it again now. What ... is the fun of being one song behind.''

His sentiments are similar to George Maloof Jr. in 2002. When I spoke with Maloof just days before the opening of The Palms, he did not want to say Las Vegas will continue to reinvent itself. Instead, it needs new ideas that lend to its diversity as a leader in gaming, dining, shopping, entertainment, and the arts. ''If anything, Las Vegas is a party place and will always be a party place. We (The Palms) will strive to be party central,'' Maloof said, referring to the hip, warm, and personalized service niche that was very unique to the city when he opened it.

His words were also echoed by Sheldon Adelson, who called me while on holiday to contribute his thoughts about the future of Las Vegas. After sharing why he thought The Venetian had recovered faster than other properties after 9/11, he added: ''our product is the best because I wanted to change the paradigm.''

Be yourself. New ideas. Change the paradigm. Different words that mean the same thing - if you want to succeed, innovate.

Sure, repackaging old ideas is as alive and well in Las Vegas as it is anywhere else in any industry. Every day we see some properties following the latest trends set by the few who are innovators.

I see it from time to time when prospective clients call and ask for us to create a brochure. Rather than asking them what size, I always ask why they need one. If the answer is because ''my competitors have one,'' then I know we may have our work cut out for us. There is a much higher learning curve for companies that attempt to follow their competition in communication. Yes, they may ultimately need a brochure or some other communication vehicle, but more often we discover they need something different first ... a message strategy that helps them innovate.

After all, as Steve Wynn says, ''What ... is the fun of being one song behind.''

Thursday, April 21

Seeking The Right Source

I received a newsletter in the mail today that focuses on effective nonprofit board management. Overall, the newsletter is always an interesting read, but one of its articles really missed the mark this time around from a communication perspective.

The well-meant article presented a scenario that addresses a common team-building challenge (non-profit or not): do you really want a person on your board (or team) who has reportedly clashed with the members of another team? The article went on to describe how a board president was mulling over whether to ask someone to join his board. Everyone on the nominating committee had met the prospective board member, liked him, and recognized him as a potential asset. However, one person from another team said that the prospective board member worked hard but clashed with some other folks on that team.

The scenario ended by asking: if you were the team leader, what would you do next? Then, the article offered responses from three executive directors across the United States. A cross sampling of the answers included: You might want to make sure that this isn't one person's opinion, but it's better to avoid bringing someone in with a track record of confrontation. People don't get new interpersonal skills just because they join a new board; I'd clarify expectations by encouraging him to join in governance, not micromanaging; Someone should talk to him and explain how this board works and that compromise is sometimes necessary.

Wow. It seems to me that all three respondents are inadvertently creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by accepting the notion that this prospect is likely to be confrontational and framing their communication with accusation. If they do this, the most likely outcome is exactly what they are anticipating: a confrontation. Except they will be the cause, not the prospect.

After all, at this point in the scenario, the assertion that the prospect is confrontational is nothing more than hearsay. Yet, no one offers that the first step should be to talk to the prospect before making any decision or attempting to pre-empt his "confrontational attitude."

The solution is easy enough. Start by following up with the prospect to let him know he is being considered and ask him about his experience with the other team (without the presumption that it was a confrontational experience or that he was the cause). His response might reveal any number of possibilities: maybe he was backed into a corner, not recognized for his efforts, hindered by someone on the team with a personal agenda, etc. Or maybe the supposed confrontation never existed except from the perception of one individual who originally floated the rumor. Or maybe there were some extraordinary cicumstances at his job or in his personal life. Or maybe, well, you get the picture.

In short, stop guessing, pre-empting, fretting, and go directly to the source (the prospect). Open, honest, and clear communication is always the best remedy to avoid inadvertently creating a problem that may not even be a problem with the prospect or on your board.

Sunday, April 17

Employing Service Essentials

A few years ago, I published some paraphrased service philosophies from Holly Stiel's workshop article ''Duh! A No-brainer Guide to the Essence of Service'' for a hospitality trade publication that our company managed for five years.

If you are unfamiliar with the name, Holly Stiel is a renowned author, speaker and trainer who has assisted some of the world's best companies and organizations strive to provide their guests with the ultimate service. Duh! is one of her favorite acronyms: Deliver service with Understanding and Heart.* It includes 11 customer service points:

1. Caring. Care about others and you can provide a high level of service.
2. Empathy. Apathy never leads to empathy in difficult situations.
3. Willingness. Do whatever is possible to get the job done right.
4. Patience. Listen without taking it personally; respond with empathy.
5. Love. Reach the minds of your audience and operate from the heart.
6. Understanding. Know your products, services, and customers' needs.
7. Attentiveness. Pay attention to feelings; think before responding.
8. Follow through. Always do what you say you are going to do.
9. Organization. Have information readily available and updated.
10. Laughter. Find humor to serve the public with a positive attitude.
11. Appreciativeness. Always say 'thank you very much' and mean it.

These 11 points came to mind while I was mulling over some teaching evaluations last week. After reading the dozen or so positive evaluations, a few of which offered constructive criticism such as spending more time on possible employment (food for thought), I focused in on the one very critical evaluation. What struck me most about it was that it offered very little in terms of improving the class and much more in terms of character assassination.

Several years ago, the personal jabs may have struck a nerve, but nowadays I'm more concerned that one of the students walked away feeling like she didn't learn anything. Since I really do care, I sent her a quick e-mail to open up an empathetic dialogue. All I received back was more of the same: how she wanted to improve her writing in one paragraph while defending her writing in the next ''I know I can write--I worked for an esteemed CA State Senator (sic) for three years and wrote speeches, leslative (sic) and policy analysis, letters, and lobbying strategy.'' (Her typos, not mine.)

I thought about taking another stab at opening a dialogue, but then decided against it because somewhere between the conclusion of the class and the day she responded to my e-mail, our roles had changed. I was no longer the vendor as her instructor, but the customer as someone who could provide her a few job leads.

This brings me back to the opening. In an industry such as communication, communicators will often find themselves in a position where customer-vendor roles are reversed. As a result, it is always worthwhile to consider HOW we communicate as much as WHAT we communicate. There is nothing wrong with offering suggestions or sharing a difference of opinion (people have them all the time in this industry), but there may be consequences if you don't know the difference between a fair comment and a personal attack. After all, everyone is a potential customer.

* Holly's full article is available at Holly Speaks

Tuesday, April 12

Spell-Checking To Disaster


I recently came across an archived blog post (www.callalillie.com) that reminded me of a study about the pitfalls of spell-check.

The post explained how a federal judge in Philadelphia had taken a stand against typo-prone lawyers by reducing a lawyer's request for fees, citing an overabundance of typographical errors in his filings.

In one letter, the NY Times reported, the lawyer had given the magistrate's name as Jacon, not Jacob [Hart]. Hart responded: ''I appreciate the elevation to what sounds like a character in 'The Lord of the Rings,' but, alas, I am only a judge.''

This fits well with a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh a few years ago. In this study, 33 undergraduate students were asked to proofread a one-page business letter. Half used Microsoft Word and half used their heads.

Without grammar or spelling software, students with higher SAT verbal scores made, on average, five errors compared to 12.3 errors made by students with lower scores. Using spell-check software, students with higher verbal scores made, on average, 16 errors compared with 17 errors for students with lower scores.

Associated Press writer Charles Sheehan asked Microsoft technical specialist Tim Pash to comment on the study. Pash reminded him that grammar and spelling programs are meant to help writers and editors, not solve their problems.

The simple truth is that spell-check and grammar programs are great tools to help people think about what they've written in a document, letter, article, or essay. But like any tool, they create more problems than solutions when used incorrectly.

When it comes to being a better writer, think of spell-check like driving a car with an automatic transmission. The automatic transmission makes driving easier, but if you don't take the time to understand the rules of the road, you're still headed for disaster.

Sunday, April 10

Creating A Community Blog

On Friday, it was my privilege to speak about how blogs are transforming everything we know about business communication to about 35 professional communicators and UNLV communication students. The luncheon was hosted by the International Association of Business Communicators at the Las Vegas Country Club.

Although technological limitations prevented me from sharing our preliminary PowerPoint presentation, attendees were still very interested in the data we had pulled together and our analysis on the impact that blogs are having on communication. Given the time constraints of working without a visual presentation, I was only able to touch briefly on the idea that the application of blogs as a strategic communication tool is still in its infancy.

Case in point: today, my company launched the first phase of a new blog that will be maintained as a partnership with the Nevada Commission for National & Community Service, Inc., a non-profit organization that administers AmeriCorps programs in Nevada (yes, the same commission I posted about last Wednesday). The purpose of the Nevada Business Community Blog (NBCB) is two-fold: recognize the dedication, commitment, and determination of businesses supporting non-profit organizations throughout Nevada and to promote increased business giving and volunteerism throughout the state.

The idea is one that I've given considerable thought to for several months; creating an online news feed for companies that give back to their community in Nevada as well as companies that are interested in developing a business giving program on any level. Sure, this idea has been around for some time, but never in the form of a statewide web log, which is ideal for the abundance of community service-related news releases sent out daily by companies throughout our state.

It's my hope that companies that have yet to embrace business giving will find the practice is much more prevalent and worthwhile than previously thought, which is why there is no cost to Nevada businesses to share their non-profit related news on the blog. If you're interested in a living example of how blogs can be applied to do good for our businesses and communities, visit NBCB. We've launched the first phase and will begin posting releases from the business community beginning April 15.

I would also like to offer special thanks to my partner (vice president of Copywrite, Ink.), Kim Becker, for bringing blogs to my attention almost a year ago and to Shawn Lecker-Pomaville, executive director of the Nevada Commission for National & Community Service, Inc., for embracing the idea and adding it as yet another way the commission can engage Nevadans of all ages and backgrounds in community-based service.

Wednesday, April 6

Sharing Community Service

Yesterday, along with Craig Warner, state program director for the Corporation for National and Community Service, I had the honor of representing the Nevada Commission for National & Community Service (NCNCS), which oversees seven AmeriCorps programs in Nevada, to recognize three outstanding individuals at the National Service Summit in Las Vegas. The awards were for outstanding service through either AmeriCorps, VISTA or SeniorCorps.

As vice chair of the NCNCS, I was asked to recognize the AmeriCorps award recipient, Raul Gomez, who serves as a AmeriCorps member at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Las Vegas. Over the last couple years, he has developed several dozen programs at the Boys and Girls Clubs to benefit area youth.

Even more amazing to me, he is one of 160 highly skilled AmeriCorps members in Nevada who dedicate between three and 12 months of their lives to community service in exchange for modest living conditions and a small education award so they may go on to college upon completion of their civic contribution. It's an excellent program, one that I've been thrilled to be part of since Gov. Kenny Guinn first appointed me to the commission almost four years ago.

More than any other reason, my motivation to serve is because of individuals like Gomez. Their dedication, humility, and passion to help others is nothing less than inspirational. Collectively, these individuals have helped more than 194,000 Nevadans during the 2003-04 fiscal year and they do it with minimal program funding, recognition, or reward.

As far as return on investment for the state, few programs come close to AmeriCorps in Nevada, which is involved in everything from increasing literacy and supporting at-risk youth, to providing job training and rehabilitation for homeless veterans, and environmental programs that restore our state's natural resources while reducing the risk of forest fires near rural and metropolitan areas.

Considering Nevada often ranks near the bottom in terms of overall charitable giving when compared to most states, I have always found it encouraging that AmeriCorps members and hundreds of other volunteers throughout Nevada remain unwavering in their commitment to make a difference. It makes me wonder, perhaps, if we should sometimes pay more attention to such positive examples and stellar role models in our state and less time on statistics that frequently ask the wrong questions.

Sunday, April 3

Making A Mountain Of Lies

It was no surprise to me to learn that scientists on the nuclear waste project in Nevada fabricated their quality assurance reports. As a junior in college, majoring in journalism, I wrote an article about the Yucca Mountain project in 1990. It was prompted by a comment made by one of the presenters at the first public forum held in Reno, Nev.

The presenter stated to a group of 50 residents that spent nuclear pellets were ''safe enough to hold in your hand.'' It was a lie, the first of what would later become a 15-year mountain of deception from the U. S. Department of Energy, an agency with a long track record of lies.

The newest batch of fabrications and cover-up tactics were recently released in a 90-page collection of e-mails uncovered by a subcommittee headed by Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev. One e-mail highlighted by the Las Vegas Review-Journal states: ''I've made up the dates and names. ... If they need more proof I will be happy to make up more stuff.''

It's scary stuff to think people entrusted with the transportation and storage of deadly nuclear waste would lie. And it's equally scary to me that we continue to see a growing number of people — public figures and politicians — who seem grossly ignorant of how to remedy their own dishonesty. They should take the time to know. After all, it seems to me that most severe credibility damage is never the initial fabrication but in how truth is handled when it finally comes to light.

More often than not, modern liars will attempt to cover up the lie or somehow attempt to minimize it with invalid justifications. This flawed tactic leads to more lies, half-truths, or demands of privacy (usually to protect other lies that have yet to be uncovered), which inevitably leads to complete self-destruction. They eventually lose everything instead of simply taking responsibility for what is sometimes a much lighter infraction. The motivation, of course, is fear. Someone caught in a lie is afraid of the consequences so they will do anything and everything to cover it up, which only makes it worse.

The best remedy to prevent such a catastrophe is to make it a point to never lie. Ethics 101. Professional communicators engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding. The ''spin'' factor does not apply.

However, since we all know people are human and are often tempted to do the wrong thing, it might be helpful to know the only strategy that truly succeeds at remedying the wrong done to others by perpetuating lies. First and foremost, stop it. At some point, the lies have to stop or they and any cover up will consume your life until you won't even know who you are anymore.

Second, admit the mistake and the lie(s), recognizing your wrongdoing, and promptly correct any erroneous communication for which you are responsible. This is your one and only opportunity to come clean by providing full disclosure of any related misdeeds and lies. The smallest details matter. If you don't move to voluntary offer full disclosure, you risk losing even more credibility when related lies are uncovered (they always are) or in demanding partial secrecy (as the person asking for a second chance, you must give up your right to make demands).

Third, make a real effort to undo any damage caused. It is not enough to admit the mistake, demonstrate remorse, and promise to never do it again. Inevitably, when someone lies, people suffer. And even if no amount of positive action may ever truly heal the damage caused, it remains the burden of the liar to do everything possible to remedy or minimize the damage done to the people they hurt.

Fourth, volunteer to be transparent, forgoing secrets or privacy for some undefined period of time, which is usually dependent on the severity of the misdeed and the number of lies that followed. Open and honest communication is the only way to restore credibility and trust. If you make continued demands for privacy, it only reinforces the idea that you have more to hide from the people who suffered. In time, you may be trusted again.

Fifth, promise to never lie again (not only to the people you lied to, but to yourself), exonerate the victims (most lies and cover ups involve discrediting the victims), and always guide others to making better life choices. In short, let your example, provided it does not hurt or embarrass someone, help other people avoid making the same mistake.

It is almost never the error, but in how we handle the error that defines our character and public perception. So in the months ahead, it will be no surprise to me if some proponents of Yucca Mountain attempt to do exactly the opposite of what I outlined above. Most will be too afraid to attempt such a remedy. After all, they weren't brave enough to face the truth to begin with, which is exactly why they resorted to one lie, and then a mountain of them.
 

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